Mahler's Legacy

Classic Arts Features   Mahler's Legacy
The Philadelphia Orchestra celebrates Gustav Mahler.

"Oh, that I might give my symphony its first performance 50 years after my death!" Thus did Gustav Mahler bemoan the reaction he expected from audience and critics at the world premiere of his Fifth Symphony. This exasperated outburst represents more than a sarcastic swipe at his contemporaries. In looking to a future he would never live to see, the composer was also hinting at an awareness that his artistic achievement would stand the test of time. Now, nearly 100 years after his death, and with Mahler's status assured, we might well ask: How, more precisely, does Mahler fit into the history of music? In February and March, The Philadelphia Orchestra, under Christoph Eschenbach, will offer "Mahler's World," a series of concerts and other events dedicated to bringing us Mahler's music and his legacy‹the composers he influenced as well as his own musical inheritance. In so doing, these performances present a rare opportunity to position Mahler within a broader musical context, to rehear his works as they affected others and to revisit some of the masters he so greatly admired.

Given his success today, it is somehow fitting that Mahler placed more faith in the perceptions of listeners yet to come than in the fickle, even hostile judgments of his contemporaries. His first true public success as a composer, the world premiere of the mammoth Third Symphony in 1902, did little to lessen his skepticism. While from then on relatively assured of public attention and acclaim, he continued to suspect that his importance in the musical world amounted to little more than a personality cult, blinding the public from truly understanding his art. That Mahler remained confident of future recognition is a testament to his inner fortitude but also reveals a significant aspect of his self-appraisal as a composer. By subscribing to a Romantic view of the artist, Mahler thrust his sense of isolation upon himself. Simply put, in Mahler's eyes the incomprehension of his contemporaries was a painful but necessary price to pay for being a genius.

Mahler's tacit claim to greatness put tremendous pressure on his creativity, filling him with an urge to perfection that would match the standards of timeless achievement. In keeping with this ideal, he became a ruthless editor of his own works, years later continuing to modify details of orchestration (as with the Fifth Symphony), reversing the order of movements (Sixth Symphony), even removing entire sections of his compositions (the "Blumine" movement of the First Symphony and the "Waldmärchen" of Das klagende Lied). While refining his works for future listeners, Mahler also rather frequently applied his energies to adapting and altering compositions of past masters. There is not a little irony here, too, as Mahler meddled with the accomplishments of his predecessors in a way that the explicit and detailed instructions in his own scores sought to prevent. Part "improvement," part homage, these projects reveal Mahler's fascination with tapping the potential of earlier music by applying the resources of the modern orchestra. In the case of the Beethoven and Schubert symphonies, Mahler's retouchings were meant to bring their more modest orchestration up to date, while his modifications of Schumann's symphonies attempted to redress what he perceived as weaknesses in the original scores. Mahler also assembled a pastiche of movements from two Bach orchestral suites, here, too, reinvigorating the past in a modern guise. Similarly, the transcription of Beethoven's Op. 95 String Quartet grew from the conviction that this exceptional music deserved a fuller rendering, to bring such work, as he once put it, "to its highest level." The same approach motivated his orchestration of Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" Quartet (D. 810).

Mahler was, of course, not entirely correct in claiming that he had been misunderstood by his contemporaries. He also became an object of admiration and emulation. In turn-of-the-century Vienna an entire generation of musicians came of age in awe of him. As a highly respected conductor and director of the Court Opera, Mahler was known as an exacting taskmaster whose uncompromising standards and phenomenal musicality resulted in performances of exceptional quality. Equally tangible and perhaps even more crucial to Mahler's influence on the popular imagination was his fanatical devotion to art. His obsessiveness exacted a heavy toll on those who worked with him, yet even his most adamant adversaries begrudgingly admired his dedication. Mahler cared little for ceremony, remaining ever the aesthete in pursuit of a higher calling.

It was this image of Mahler as an idealist who lived for his art and shunned the conventions of the establishment that made him so appealing to the likes of Arnold Schoenberg. It is tempting to think that the meetings between Mahler and Schoenberg played some crucial role in their subsequent development as composers. They certainly had the opportunity to exchange ideas, as Mahler on more than one occasion sped off with Schoenberg and other aspiring musicians after performances at the Opera to talk about music late into the night. Sensing the unusual talent of his younger colleague, Mahler lent Schoenberg support in the tumultuous early years of his career, not only providing occasional financial assistance but also vociferously defending the latter's First String Quartet in public and accepting the title of honorary president of the Society of Composers, an organization founded by Schoenberg and his friends to promote new music. Mahler's interest in the young composer had been piqued by a rehearsal of Schoenberg's Transfigured Night (1899) around the time of its world premiere in 1902 by members of the Rosé Quartet, a prominent chamber ensemble led by Mahler's brother-in-law, Arnold Rosé. Mahler never claimed to have had a thorough grasp of Schoenberg's art; in fact, he explicitly pointed to the problems he faced with this music. All the same‹or perhaps precisely because of this‹it is fascinating to ponder how Mahler stretched tonality to its very limits in the most wrenching passages of the Adagio of his last work, the unfinished Tenth Symphony (1910). The final steps to atonality would be taken by Schoenberg over a decade later.

Schoenberg's erstwhile composition teacher and brother-in-law, Alexander Zemlinsky, also looked to Mahler, perhaps nowhere more apparently than in the Lyric Symphony (1922-1923), whose seven sections for alternating male and female soloist with large orchestra based on an Oriental text clearly owe a considerable debt to the proportions, scoring, and ambitions of Das Lied von der Erde. Mahler's influence on symphonic writing would, of course, also come to extend far beyond the confines of Vienna. An exemplary case can be found in Dmitri Shostakovich, whose musical style sometimes bears an uncanny resemblance to his forebear. Most striking are the infernal marches, almost petty-sounding tunes, and cataclysmic collapses that unfold in a typical Shostakovich symphony. His Tenth, completed shortly after Stalin's death in 1953, provides an illustrative example. That Mahler would influence Shostakovich is all the more astounding when one takes into account the reception of Mahler's works in the Soviet Union. Dismissed as "formalist" and thus banned from the concert hall, Mahler long remained virtually unknown to the public. Scores were nevertheless tolerated and Shostakovich studied them earnestly, sometimes, as with the Adagio of the Tenth Symphony, even preparing a four-hand version for private performance.

These are but some of the highlights of the weeks to come. True to Mahler's legacy, "Mahler's World" brings together an impressive variety of composers, genres, and periods, reflecting the enormous breadth and impact of the composer's musical thinking. By rediscovering Mahler's past, present, and future we will gain a deeper appreciation of the immediacy with which he continues to speak to us today.

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